The 1905 Revolution – marking the centenary

The 9th January (22th January in the Gregorian calendar) marks the centenary of one of the greatest events of the twentieth century. The stormy events of 1905 formed the majestic prologue to the revolutionary drama of 1917, and were described famously by Lenin as the “dress rehearsal” for the October revolution. Revolution puts parties and individuals to the acid test and clarifies programmes, ideas and perspectives. In reality, the success of 1917 was due in very large measure to the experience acquired by the generation in the 1905 revolution.

“In the history of revolutions there come to light contradictions that have ripened for decades and centuries. Life becomes unusually eventful. The masses, which have always stood in the shade and have therefore often been ignored and even despised by superficial observers, enter the political arena as active combatants. The masses are learning in practice, and before the eyes of the world are taking their first tentative steps, feeling their way, defining their objectives, testing themselves and the theories of all their ideologists. These masses are making heroic efforts to rise to the occasion and cope with the gigantic tasks of world significance imposed upon them by history.” (Lenin, Revolutionary Days, January 1905)

The 9th January (22th January in the Gregorian calendar) marks the centenary of one of the greatest events of the twentieth century. The stormy events of 1905 formed the majestic prologue to the revolutionary drama of 1917, and were described famously by Lenin, as the “dress rehearsal” for the October revolution. Revolution puts parties and individuals to the acid test and clarifies programmes, ideas and perspectives. In reality, the success of 1917 was due in very large measure to the experience acquired by the generation in the 1905 revolution.

The 1905 Revolution was no surprise to the Russian Marxists, who had long predicted the revolutionary movement of the Russian masses. Yet when revolution came, the sweep and scale of events was truly historic.

“Events of the greatest historical importance are developing in Russia”, wrote Lenin a few days after the massacre of Bloody Sunday. “The proletariat has risen against Tsarism... Events are developing with astonishing rapidity. The general strike in St. Petersburg is spreading. All industrial, public, and political activities are paralysed... The revolution is spreading.”

The 1905 Revolution was a product of the accumulation of contradictions deep in Russian society. Tsarism was in a blind impasse and could not develop society any further. The emergence of the proletariat placed revolution on the order of the day. But there were more immediate causes that produced the spark of revolution. The events of 1905 grew directly out of the Russo-Japanese war, just as the revolution of 1917 was the direct outcome of the First World War. The military defeats of Tsarism, combined with the intolerable burdens imposed by the regime on the backs of the masses, was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tsarist Russia had long been the most reactionary power in Europe. Ruled by a feudal autocracy, capitalist development had come late to Russia. Capitalism had been largely imported from the West and artificially grafted onto backward economic and social relations. Unlike its counterparts in the West, the Russian bourgeoisie was extremely weak and incapable of carrying through a bourgeois-democratic revolution that would create a modern democratic republic. In fact, rather than play a revolutionary role, it played a counter-revolutionary one. The bourgeoisie was terrified of the masses, and while seeking “reforms”, it above all sought protection from the Old Order. Everything fell to the newly-emerging Russian proletariat to carry through a revolutionary struggle against Tsarism. But the struggle would not end there. As Trotsky explained in his brilliant theory of Permanent Revolution, which he developed largely from the experience of 1905, the workers would fight to come to power, carry through the bourgeois tasks and then proceed to the socialist tasks. The revolution would inevitably break through national confines and become part of the chain of world socialist revolution.

The leading role of the proletariat in the coming revolution, as explained by both Lenin and Trotsky, was confirmed in the events of 1905. It was the first time that the Russian working class had decisively entered upon the stage of history and attempted to take its destiny into its own hands.

“In the revolution whose beginning history will identify with the year 1905”, wrote Trotsky, “the proletariat stepped forward for the first time under its own banner in the name of its own objectives.”

Father Gapon

The tsarist dictatorship, the burden of war, as well as the harsh conditions in the factories, drove discontent in the working class to new levels. This reached its climax with the explosive strike at the Putilov arms factory in December 1904. A sea change was taking place in the working class, as strikes spread from industry to another. It represented the ferment that preceded the explosion. However, the 1905 Revolution finally erupted over an incident: with the presentation of a petition to the tsar on 9th January. Led by a priest, Father Gapon, a peaceful demonstration of some 140,000 marched to the Winter Palace to appeal for help from the tsar, known affectionately as the “Little Father”.

“Sire, our strength is at an end! The limit of our patience has been reached; the terrible moment has come for us when it is better to die than to continue suffering intolerable torment.”

But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead of sympathy, the demonstration was faced with a massacre – some 4,600 people were killed or wounded by government troops – and went down in history as “Bloody Sunday”. The savage reaction of the regime transformed the situation within 24 hours. The pent up revolutionary energy of the masses finally exploded.

Marx explained that the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counterrevolution to drive it forward. The massacre of January 1905 acted as such a revolutionary catalyst. The cry went up everywhere: “Arms! Arms!”

“The working class”, wrote Lenin from exile, “has received a momentous lesson in civil war: the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. The slogan of the heroic St Petersburg proletariat, ‘Death or Freedom!’ is reverberating throughout Russia.”

On 10th January barricades were erected in Petersburg. Within a week, 160,000 workers had struck work. Strikes quickly spread to other areas. In January around 400,000 workers went on strike throughout Russia. The revolutionary wave swept through Poland and the Baltic states, Georgia, Armenia, and Central Russia.

The tsarist autocracy took fright. Rather than teaching the workers a lesson, they had provoked a revolution! “The vast majority of people seemed to go mad”, wrote Count Witte in his memoirs. But all revolutions appear as madness to those it seeks to sweep aside. On 18th February, under pressure of a growing strike movement, the tsar issued his first Manifesto, hinting at a constitution and reforms. Of course, this concession “from above” was simply a manoeuvre, aimed at splitting the movement and defusing the situation. But the movement continued and intensified.

The Russian social democracy – both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – originally met with hostility from the masses before 9th January. Now, for the first time they connected with the mass movement and their influence grew by leaps and bounds.

Conditioned by years of clandestinity, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to immediately open up their ranks. “We need young forces. I am for shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say that there are no people to be had. The people in Russia are legion: all we have to do is to recruit young people more widely and boldly, more boldly and widely, and again more boldly without fearing them. This is a time of war.”

He went on: “Get rid of all the old habits of immobility, of respect for rank, and so on. Form hundreds of circles of Vperyod-ists [the Bolshevik paper] from among the youth and encourage them to work at full blast.”

“To sum up”, he said, “we must reckon with the growing movement, which has increased a hundredfold, with the new tempo of the work, with the freer atmosphere and the wider field of activity. The work must be given an entirely different scope. Methods of training should be refocused from peaceful instruction to military operations. Young fighters should be recruited more boldly, widely, and rapidly into the ranks of all and every kind of our organisations. Hundreds of new organisations should be set up for the purpose without a moment’s delay. Yes, hundreds; this is no hyperbole, and let no one tell me that it is ‘too late’ now to tackle such a broad organisational job. No, it is never too late to organise.”

These remarks were aimed at the “committee-men”, the professional revolutionaries who ran the party and who had, in reality, a contempt for its working-class followers. They wanted to continue the methods of the underground period, which were now completely out of date.

How very different is this Lenin from the caricatures drawn by bourgeois academics and Stalinist commentators alike, who portray him as a ruthless party dictator, a conspirator, who, fearing the masses, held on to power at all costs.

At the same time, Lenin poured scourn on the liberals with their illusions in peaceful constitutional reform, as well as the Mensheviks who clung to their coat-tails. The question was poised point blank: to arm the workers and overthrow Tsarism. This was the urgent task facing the revolutionary movement.

Throughout the spring and summer the pendulum swung continually to the left. While the workers of Petersburg took a breather, the provinces rose up in struggle. Strikes took on an increasingly political character and there was mutiny in the Black Sea fleet. The threat of revolution at home forced the regime to end the war with Japan.

Alongside peace with Japan, the authorities announced a new Manifesto in August, promising a new parliament, or Duma. However, the proposals gave the vote to the landlords and urban middle class, but disenfranchised the bulk of the population. Given the revolutionary conditions, the Bolsheviks correctly came out for a boycott of the elections. They explained only the overthrow of Tsarism by the revolutionary actions of the masses could prepare the ground for genuine democracy.

A new revolutionary impulse came in the autumn, beginning with a print strike in Moscow that quickly spread to the railways. “This small event”, wrote Trotsky, “set off nothing more or less than the all-Russian political strike – the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.”

By October, there was a general strike on the railways involving some 750,000 workers. The movement became generalised and again raised the question of power. On 10th October, a political general strike was proclaimed in Moscow, Kharkov, and Revel; the next day in Smolensk, Kozlov, Yekaterinoslav and Lodz; in a few days the strike was declared in Kursk, Byelgorod, Samara, Saratov, Poltava, Petersburg, Orsha, Minsk, Odessa, Riga, Warsaw and elsewhere. “The October strike”, noted Trotsky, “was a demonstration of the proletariat’s hegemony in the bourgeois revolution and, at the same time, of the hegemony of the towns in an agricultural country.”

“In its extent and acuteness,” Lenin explained later, “the strike struggle had no parallel anywhere in the world. The economic strike developed into a political strike, and later into insurrection.”

Terrified of the revolution, “Nicholas the Bloody” was forced to make concessions and sign a new Manifesto on 17th October. “Herod’s got his tail between his legs”, remarked a worker. But the Manifesto solved nothing, only to detach the liberals from the tailcoat of the revolution. However, with Tsarist concessions came bloody repression. This was the time of General Trepov’s famous order: “No blank volleys, and spare no bullets.” An orgy of reaction was unleashed by the Black Hundred gangs, resulting in up to 4,000 people murdered and a further 10,000 injured in pogroms. The experience demonstrated, above all, the need for the revolution to arm itself in its own self-defence. In Petersburg, the Soviet organised the arming of the proletariat and the setting up of workers’ militias.

The revolution brought the proletariat to its feet. It raised its class-consciousness and self esteem. Above all, it gave rise to self-organisation in the form of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, established on 13th October.

“The Soviet came into being”, wrote Trotsky, “as a response to an objective need – a need born out of the course of events. It was an organisation which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organisational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control – and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.”

The initiative for the Soviet organisation came from the St Petersburg Mensheviks. Trotsky had a similar idea when he arrived from Finland. The general strike needed an extended strike committee to coordinate things, and the Soviet played this key role by drawing in delegates from the factories (one delegate for every 500 workers). To have the necessary authority in the eyes of the masses, it had to be based upon the broadest representation. Astonishingly, the Soviet was rejected by a part of the Bolshevik leadership who were in Petersburg, fearing it as a rival political organisation to the party. They even went to the Soviet with a resolution: either accept the full revolutionary programme of social democracy or disband! This sectarian attitude towards the Soviet, which resulted in the Bolshevik faction failing to gain a leading position in the events, lasted until Lenin arrived in November.

Of all the revolutionary leaders of the social democracy, it was Trotsky who played the most prominent role in 1905. By this time none of the main leaders had returned from exile. Martov only returned to Russia after 17th October; Lenin on 4th November. Trotsky, on the other hand, had arrived in Kiev in February.

Lunacharsky, who was one of Lenin’s closest collaborators at the time, recalled: “His [Trotsky’s] popularity among the Petersburg proletariat at the time of his arrest [in December] was tremendous and increased still more as a result of his picturesque and heroic behaviour in court. I must say that of all the social democratic leaders of 1905-6 Trotsky undoubtedly showed himself, despite his youth, to be the best prepared. Less than any of them did he bear the stamp of a certain kind of émigré narrowness of outlook which, as I have said, even affected Lenin at that time. Trotsky understood better than all the others what it means to conduct the political struggle on a broad, national scale. He emerged from the revolution having acquired an enormous degree of popularity, whereas neither Lenin nor Martov had effectively gained any at all. Plekhanov had lost a great deal, thanks to his display of quasi-Cadet tendencies. Trotsky stood then in the very front rank.”

Since the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903, Trotsky had broken with the Mensheviks and attempted to unite both factions. On political questions, however, Trotsky was very close to Lenin. On Lenin’s return to Russia, he took up the need for the re-unification of the two wings of the social democracy – the RSDLP.

Undated poster on the 1905 revolution

Trotsky was only 26 when he became president of the St Petersburg Soviet. The first brief chairman of the Soviet, the Menshevik sympathiser G S Khrustalyov was an accidental figure, like Father Gapon. Trotsky wrote the most important declarations and resolutions of the Soviet, and was the natural replacement after Khrustaloyov’s arrest. “Well, Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work”, commented Lenin.

Trotsky thrived in the leadership of the St Petersburg proletariat. He immediately connected with the revolution and threw himself into its work. He took over the tiny Russian Gazette and transformed it into a fighting organ. As a result, its circulation rose from 30,000 to 500,000. Closed down by the government, Trotsky put his efforts into a new political organ, Nachalo (The Beginning), which was a great success. He also wrote editorials for the Izvestia (The News), the official organ of the Soviet, as well as its manifestos and resolutions.

“The fifty-two days of the existence of the first Soviet”, wrote Trotsky, “were filled to the brim with work – the Soviets, the Executive Committee, endless meetings, and three papers. How we managed to live in this whirlpool is still not clear, even to me.”

While the October manifesto produced concessions, they were of a partial and temporary nature. The Soviet’s response was to continue the general strike. However, the strike had lost its momentum and the decision was made to end the strike on 21st October. But this was no solemn act. Hundreds of thousands marched with the Soviet at its head demanding amnesty, which was partially granted.

Once more, feeling the lull in the struggle, the counter-revolution reared its ugly head. Pro-tsarist demonstrations were organised, led by clergy and bishops. The bands played “God Save the Tsar”, the hymn of the pogromists. Police directed crowds of hooligans in the wrecking of Jewish homes and shops. Some 3,500-4,000 people were killed and as many as 10,000 maimed in 100 towns. Thanks to the workers no pogroms took place in St Petersburg, but workers’ detachments were steadily dispersed and arms confiscated. The manifesto and amnesty concessions represented only a momentary truce, nothing more.

In Kronstadt, on 26th and 27th October a mutiny flared up. Martial law was declared a day later and the mutiny was crushed. Many revolutionary soldiers and sailors were threatened with execution. Pressure mounted on the Soviet to act against this open provocation. The Soviet issued an appeal for a general strike on 2nd November, under the slogans: “Down with court-martial! Down with the death penalty! Down with martial law in Poland and throughout Russia!”

The success of the appeal surpassed all expectations. Once again the authorities were wrong-footed and conceded that there would be no court martial. Given that the struggles nationally were on the wane, the leaders of the Soviet decided to end the strike on 7th November. However, the return to work was undertaken with the same degree of spirit and unity as when it began.

It was a turning-point for the revolution as a whole. The St Petersburg proletariat after ten months of tremendous exertions were finally exhausted. On 3rd December, the whole of the St Petersburg Soviet was arrested. The life of the Petersburg Soviet had come to an end.

Fifty-two members of the St Petersburg Soviet were finally placed on trial in September 1906, on the charge of “preparing an armed uprising” against the existing “form of government”. From the dock, Trotsky defiantly turned his speech into an attack on the autocracy and a defence of the Soviet and the revolution. “The historical power in whose name the prosecutor speaks in this court is the organised violence of the minority over the majority! The new power, whose precursor was the Soviet, represents the organised will of the majority calling the minority to order. Because of this distinction the revolutionary right of the Soviet to existence stands above all juridical and moral speculations...”

For now, with the arrest of the Petersburg Soviet, the revolutionary initiative moved to Moscow. On 2nd December a mutiny had broken out in the Moscow Rostov regiment, but was suppressed. Nevertheless, despite this setback, the mood in the factories was reaching fever pitch. They were prepared for resolute action, even some layers proposing armed insurrection. This mood affected the Moscow Soviet, which declared a general strike on 7th December. But under the circumstance, everyone knew this to be a vote for an insurrection. The appeal for solidarity from Petersburg had partial success, with 83,000 coming out on strike.

The spark for the insurrection in Moscow was a government provocation – troops were sent to disperse workers’ meetings. There were clashes and barricades were thrown up as a general strike began to spread. Despite this advance there was vacillation in the Soviet leadership and the counter-revolution struck back. This provoked the masses further and an armed uprising broke out. Barricades were thrown up throughout the city and there was extensive street fighting. Unfortunately, the government troops remained loyal and the insurrection was eventually put down. The Moscow defeat constituted a heavy blow to the revolution.

Although defeated, the struggle had not been in vain. Without this experience, the October Revolution would not have been possible. The experienced served to crystallise the political differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism. Plekhanov’s famous remark that “they should not have taken up arms!” was the plea of one who was moving away from revolution. Lenin in reply, stated that “On the contrary, we should have taken up arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine ourselves to a peaceful strike, that a fearless and relentless armed struggle was indispensable.” The Mensheviks were increasingly looking to the liberal bourgeoisie to lead the (bourgeois) revolution, while Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were relying on the working class for leadership. Eventually, this would place the Mensheviks on the wrong side of the barricades in the October Revolution of 1917.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to finish with a quote from Trotsky’s book, 1905: “In 1905, the working class was still too weak to seize power, but subsequent events forced it to gain maturity and strength, not in the environment of a bourgeois-democratic republic, but in the underground of the Tsarism of 3rd June. The proletariat came to power in 1917 with the help of the experience acquired by its older generation in 1905. That is why young workers today must have complete access to that experience and must, therefore, study the history of 1905.”